Studying education from both sides

In March 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic was confirmed to have hit Winnipeg, U of M students were met with uncertainty and anxiety, with questions about school running through their minds — “Am I going to graduate on time?,” “Will I have to extend my degree?,” “Will these degree requirements count?” and, the most pressing of all, “How is the winter 2020 term going to continue in the midst of this global crisis?”

These sentiments echoed even louder for students in the faculty of education, who found themselves amid the chaos with the school closures and the transition of education to remote learning platforms occurring from dual perspectives — that of post-secondary students and of aspiring teachers.

Manitoba Education and Training requires teacher candidates to complete a minimum of 24 weeks of practicum to be eligible for professional certification, meaning that the full five weeks are vital for continuing in the program and for graduation — especially for those who have jobs lined up to start in September.

At the time, students in the faculty of education were beginning their final practicum blocks for the term as teacher candidates and, between the lack of communication from the university and the unclear directives from higher-ups in the local school divisions, were feeling more than a little at sea.

A second-year science education student in the senior years stream at the U of M, who wished to remain anonymous to protect their identity and student status, said that the gaps in communication in those early days were the most frustrating parts.

“Upon speaking with teacher candidates from other universities, I learned that the other universities were very efficient with the change and had clear ideas on how to direct their teacher candidates for the remainder of the semester,” they said.

“Teacher candidates from University of Manitoba were uncertain if the time they had committed to the practicum would count towards their certification due to the back-and-forth from the university.”

Indeed, at one point during 2020’s winter term, the U of M teacher candidates were the only teacher candidates still attending their practicum placements while students from the University of Winnipeg were removed until further notice. U of W education students Sheena Manghera and Amy Adair said that last April’s practicum was an entirely different experience for them.

Manghera said that they “worked on an alternative practicum remotely.”

“We were told that we would not be going back, and we were to submit [unit] plans for each subject we were teaching to our advisor,” said Adair. “Along with that, we were to submit a 10-page, single-spaced report as to how we would implement our plan.”

For U of M teacher candidates, practicum officially began Monday, March 16, following the first confirmed positive case of COVID-19 in Winnipeg, and, by that Wednesday, the schools were borderline empty with nothing but frazzled teachers rushing through the halls, trying to move their classes online without adequate training. Teachers were given exactly two weeks to prep before going fully remote and had limited time, if any at all, to support and train teacher candidates, who often felt bereft and burdensome.

However jarring it was, and continues to be, for the teachers, though, the jump to emergency remote learning was even more challenging for the students. A math education student at the U of M, who requested anonymity, reiterated the difficulty of losing the face-to-face aspect of high school learning. “It was difficult to communicate with students only through email and it was [their] responsibility to make sure they engaged in the material,” they said. “At times, it was quite difficult to motivate students to complete work.”

“Live-streamed lessons were not permitted so students only heard me through my videos and through reading my handouts. There was a huge disconnect between the students and myself, which I was really disappointed about,” said the science education student.

Despite these initial problems, fall 2020’s practicum block went much more smoothly but operated “slightly different than last year.”

In a normal year, teacher candidates would attend practicum in the schools every Monday, but this was not the case in the fall term, to give teachers time to adjust to the new public health and safety guidelines before the teacher candidates arrived.

“The first time I met any of the students was on the first day of my block,” said the math education student, “it was more difficult to form relationships quickly and establish routine since I only saw students every second day.”

Since schools are operating on different schedules, with students coming into the building either one or two days a week, instructional time is cut in half. Further, to abide by provincial health and safety protocols, some practicum requirements — such as participation in extracurriculars and observing other teacher candidates — have been waived “to minimize contact between cohorts and [to] keep everyone safe.”

When it comes to in-person classes, learning occurs asynchronously and teacher candidates are only able to communicate with each other via discussion forums and social media, which has caused a shift in the ways education professors teach pedagogy. Cameron Hauseman, an assistant professor in the faculty of education at the U of M, said that “it feels like we have lost much of the discourse and camaraderie that separates the bachelor of education program and the faculty of education from rest of the university.”

“The switch to remote instruction has sapped much of the fun out of the teaching,” he said. “It has also led to fewer opportunities for students to collaborate with one another, which is a shame as those activities are designed to mirror how pre-service teachers will be asked to collaborate with their colleagues once they enter the profession.”

The science education teacher candidate continued this line of thought from the student perspective: “For us second years, connections between students are not as awkward since most of us already met during our first year. For first year students, some have expressed the lack of connection between peers as they have never met in person previously. Courses in the faculty encourage community-building […] but the remote learning makes this more difficult for second years and even more so for first-year students.”

These sentiments are echoed by assistant professor Shannon Moore, who believes that while the purpose of the education is the same, the remote learning environment requires certain distinct approaches to teaching and learning.

“You have to find different ways to connect with your students, to build community and to encourage dialogue and deliberation,” said Moore. “In the faculty of education this is a particular challenge; normally, professors can model [face-to-face] pedagogy through their own teaching. Now, we are using online platforms to teach [face-to-face] methods — recognizing that teacher candidates will eventually fully return to the classroom.”

As teacher candidates prepare to go into their practicum blocks this April, there is still some lingering anxiety from last year, but the U of M education students are confident in the continued adaptability and diligence of Winnipeg’s teachers, teacher candidates and communities at large.

“All parties in the educational field [have] been working really hard during this pandemic,” said the science education student. “Teachers are working harder than ever to ensure students’ success and families are trying their best to accommodate in this new normal.”

“I have seen firsthand, and experienced for myself, how hard teachers are working this year,” said the math education student. “I wanted to say teachers are superheroes and should be acknowledged for all their hard work and countless hours they spend pouring into their students.”